Filmmaker “had it right”

September 6, 2023

Fiddlers mark golden anniversary thanks to documentary

It was 30 minutes that altered two generations.

As the Cape Breton Fiddlers Association (CBFA) celebrates 50 years, it owes it origins to a half-hour program on CBC more than half a century ago.

“The Vanishing Cape Breton Fiddler,” which aired nationally in 1971, served as a wake-up call for those who loved Cape Breton fiddle music at the time. In the documentary, filmmaker Ron MacInnis suggested the art was dying, as there were few young players to replace the dwindling number of older fiddlers who were carrying on the tradition.

It prompted a group of Cape Breton fiddle enthusiasts to see what it could do to refute the film’s claims. One of those people was Frankie MacInnis of Creignish, who admits his initial response was similar to that of many Cape Bretoners.

“That was my reaction: ‘I think he’s got this wrong,’” MacInnis recalls. “Eventually I came around to believe he had it right.”

“I was going to dances in places like Glendale and Judique, and a lot of house parties, so I was exposed to a lot of music,” he says. “It was kind of a shock to me when he came up with this.”

A large crowd turned out in 1973 as more than 100 fiddlers took to the stage at what is still an annual tradition a half century later, the Glendale Scottish concert. (Photo courtesy: Cape Breton Fiddlers Association)

MacInnis was ‘instrumental’ in organizing a committee that set out to stage a fiddle festival that would prove, once and for all, that the Cape Breton fiddle was alive and well. But first they had to find fiddlers.

MacInnis, along with Fr. Eugene Morris, spent two months during the summer of 1972, travelling the many roads of Cape Breton, recruiting performers for this planned festival.

“The typical reaction was ‘well, I haven’t been playing for a while,’ or ‘I can’t go, I never played in public,’” MacInnis remembers.

“But we would persuade them and go on to the next house, and it would be the same thing. ‘If John up the road is going, then I’ll go.’”

With the recruitment drive done, the committee then needed to find a venue for its festival. The provincial park in Whycocomagh was considered, but there was little interest in closing the park on a summer weekend. The Gaelic College in St. Ann’s was approached, but they didn’t allow concerts on Sundays.

It was at this point the group got a little help from Mother Nature, as a fierce August storm had decimated the concert grounds in Glendale. Committee members met with the wardens of Glendale parish and offered to restore the facilities in exchange for allowing them to stage their festival there.

So, planning began for what would become the first “Festival of Cape Breton Fiddling” on the parish grounds in Glendale on July 6, 7 and 8 in 1973. MacInnis says there were 130 fiddlers who performed that weekend, with 102 taking the stage together for the Sunday evening finale.

Although planned as a one-off event, the success of the festival spurned biannual festivals in 1975, 1977 and 1979. It also resulted in the creation of the CBFA, which is holding a number of events to mark its golden anniversary, including Echoes of Glendale ‘73, a series of three KitchenFest! events in late June and early July staged to commemorate that first festival.

MacInnis says the initial festival was an important turning point for Cape Breton fiddling.

“What it created was an atmosphere that it was okay to play the fiddle, and that attracted a lot of kids,” he explains.

A couple of years later MacInnis successfully applied for a grant to hire fiddler John MacDougall to host a series of fiddle lessons in various communities, including Mabou, Glendale and Creignish.

“The first night he showed up here at the little school in Creignish, there were 62 people showed up to take fiddle lessons.”

Busy year of anniversary events

In keeping with that effort to foster an interest in Cape Breton fiddle music, the CBFA has partnered with the Province of Nova Scotia to offer a series of fiddle lessons for youth in five locations throughout the province.

The lessons are being led by professional and experienced teachers, including Boyd MacNeil in Cape Breton Regional Municipality; Rachel Davis in Victoria County; Allison Kehoe in Richmond County; Andrea Beaton in Inverness County;
and Kendra MacGillivary in Halifax Regional Municipality. The workshops are open to all youths at no charge.

The province and the association are also sponsoring a series of ‘Cape Breton Celtic Cultural Experiences’ in communities throughout Cape Breton. Information on these and other events and workshops is available on the association’s website at

Betty Matheson, long-serving secretary/treasurer for the association, says it’s a busy year for the group, which hosted its annual appreciation banquet in Port Hawkesbury in May. Along with the KitchenFest! performances, the CBFA will present appearances at the annual Broad Cove concert July 30, the Highland Village Day concert in Iona August 5, and the Celtic Colours International Festival in October.

But the jewel in the anniversary crown is the CBFA’s annual Festival of Cape Breton Fiddling, to be held at the Gaelic College August 18-20, culminating in the Gala Concert on the final day of the festival. All the fiddlers performing at this year’s festival will take the Gala stage together to play a tune chosen from the 1973 concert in Glendale – Juanita’s Jig Set.

“Our mandate is to preserve and promote traditional Cape Breton fiddle music,” Matheson notes. “That was the main reason for our creation.”

Along with several key people involved in the CBFA’s inception – Fr. John Angus Rankin, Joey Beaton, Fr. Eugene Morris, and Frankie MacInnis – Matheson says tribute should be paid to some of the past musical directors at the association over the years, including Fr. Rankin, Beaton, Stan Chapman, Fr. Angus Morris, Carl MacKenzie and Eddy Rodgers. Currently serving in that capacity are Dara MacDonald and Stephanie MacDonald.